St Paul, Minn. Mark Dayton, the Democratic governor of Minnesota who let his state’s government shut down rather than accept the refusal of Republican lawmakers to raise income taxes on the wealthy, was born into money.
It made him sure of something: “I grew up in that environment. I know people can afford it.”
Most of Minnesota state government stands idle this weekend, the result of Dayton’s and the GOP-controlled state legislature’s failure to pass a new budget by Friday’s deadline. State parks and the Minnesota Zoo are closed, highway projects are stalled and thousands of government workers are at home without pay for the foreseeable future.
The battle over the state budget in Minnesota echoes those underway in Washington and in other state capitals, as Republicans still energized from gains in 2010 focus on cutting spending and refuse to consider tax increases of any kind. New GOP governors such as New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Florida’s Rick Scott have made deep cuts in state programs and employee benefits, while even some of Dayton’s fellow Democratic governors, such as New York’s Andrew Cuomo, have eschewed tax hikes amid a fragile economic recovery.
The soft-spoken Dayton refuses to cave to the GOP’s stance that higher taxes are verboten. Since taking office, he has championed tax hikes on rich Minnesotans — or at least some form of new state revenue — as a necessary part of any solution to closing the state’s $5 billion budget deficit.
“My father’s favorite quote was from the Bible: ‘Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required,”’ Dayton told The Associated Press on Friday afternoon in his Capitol office. The front doors to the domed building were newly adorned with signs: “This building closed until further notice due to the state government service interruption.”
Dayton’s great-grandfather founded a Minneapolis-based dry goods store and along with family members built it into the department store chain that’s now Target Corp. The Dayton family no longer controls the company, but it left Mark Dayton a wealthy man who’s spent large chunks of his fortune on a quirky political career that took him to the U.S. Senate (he quit after one term) and now, at 64, to the state’s top political office.
“I don’t underestimate his resolve,” said Doug Magnus, a Republican state senator and a farmer from the state’s southwest corner. “Other people around the table, including the Republicans, have political things in mind. I believe the governor feels he has one term to do what he thinks is the right thing to do, and he’s going to do it.”
The political ideology underpinning Dayton’s actions isn’t limited to his experiences as a personally wealthy man. In Friday’s interview, he described his years after graduating from college at Yale, which included a short time teaching in an inner-city school in New York City.
“All these kids in my classroom were just as wonderful creations as I, and through no choice of our own, I was born into this great good fortune and they were born into this abject poverty,” Dayton said. “The injustice really seared my conscience.”
Dayton said his political views are more sophisticated now, but protecting the downtrodden has remained a constant. He decried the spending cuts that would likely be necessary without more tax money in Minnesota: “We’re going to cut home health care attendants for seniors? We’re going to deny elderly widows the at-home services they rely on? All so that millionaires do not have to pay another dollar in taxes?” he asked.
Dayton has never made being a politician look easy. Quiet and intense, he speaks in a halting manner, sometimes garbles his sentences and lacks a smooth personal touch. Twice divorced, he is close to two adult sons and lives in the governor’s mansion with two German shepherds — one named for a southern Minnesota town, the other for a northern part of the state.